From the comments: the Ottoman Empire and its millet system

Barry’s excellent series on Ottomanism, nationalism, and republicanism has been so good it might be hard to keep up with the dialogues it’s sparked. Here’s something from Barry in regards to a question about the Ottoman Empire’s millet system (I’ve edited it slightly, breaking up the response into more easily-digestible paragraphs):

I think I’ve tried to address this in the post. I do say that the idea of a ‘milltet system’ is a retrospective idealisation of Ottoman version of classical Muslim concept of protected minorities. In a slightly less direct way I’ve cast doubt on the idea of a pluralist Ottomanism developing on a federal basis as you mention or on a less territorial cultural pluralist basis.

As I argue in the post, Ottoman accommodation of minorities was in collapse from the early 20th century, Serbian uprisings leading to Serbian autonomy and then a war leading to Greek Independence. I presume that Ottoman modernist pluralism/federalism was simply unobtainable by then, it was just far too late for the Ottoman state to become a kind of Switzerland or even a liberalised highly pluralised unitary state.

The movement towards a national republic for the core Ottoman lands, i.e. what is now Turkey, can be traced back at least to the destruction of the Janissary order and the Serb/Greek break aways. Part of what I am arguing overall, as I hope will be clear as proceed, is that it is very very difficult for a traditional state based on a traditional hierarchy of traditional communities/estates/corporations existing over a large varied territory can exist in the modern world without some kind of top down homogenisation (think of the way China expanded over the centuries assimilating conquered peoples into Han culture) or a Russian style solution of constant political autocracy in different forms in which Slavic Orthodox Russian identity is at the centre even where Orthodox Christianity is apparently replaced by Bolshevism/Marxism-Leninism.

In short what I’m assuming and arguing is Ottoman pluralism/cosmopolitanism is an illusion, that there was never anything more than a temporary balance between components, fragmentation and separatism kept growing and separation between ‘nation states’ was inevitable. If we look at the world now, we might take India as the closest thing to a federalised liberalised Ottomanism, but India still rests on a massive predominance of Hinduism, a de facto hierarchy in which Hinduism is above other religions, regional and caste based violence, and a persistent element of Hindu chauvinism which is now explicitly in power and has never really been out of power even when the governmental ideology was apparently something else.

I’m not suggesting there is some alternative conception of what could have happened in the sub-continent which would work better than what there is now, but I can’t see that Indian neo-imperial (because based on the work of imperial regimes over the centuries) federalism works better than Turkish national-republicanism.

There is more on the millet system at NOL here, here, and here. And here is an excellent Barry essay on imperial nostalgia that’s on topic and worth reading (or re-reading).

Ottomanism, Nationalism, Republicanism IV

The previous post in this series covered the early stages of the formation of the Republic of Turkey out of the debris of the Ottoman state on the basis of ethnic nationalism combined with republicanism. Ottoman reformers were influenced by the western model. The new republicanism expressed itself in the forms of constitutionalism and representative democracy on a strictly western model, with an elected national assembly, a prime minister responsible to the assembly, and a president elected by that assembly. This post continues with an account of the early Republic which is mainly descriptive and with the aim of more analytic and evaluative comments in later posts in this series.

The nature of the fledgling state was very French influenced, in that it was a very unitary state with a very assimilationist attitude towards non-majority cultures and languages, along with a project for creating citizens of an enlightened republic. The comment of the 19th century Piedmontese-Italian politician Massimo d’Azeglio, ‘we have made Italy, now we must make Italians’ applies in a more radical way to Atatürk’s Turkey, who was someone of much more radical republican inclination than d’Azegio. Roughly speaking the work of French republicanism and reformism from 1789 to the 1920s was squeezed into Atatürk’s period of leadership, from 1919 until his death in 1938.  For this reason, the Kemalist program is sometimes referred to as Jacobin in Turkey.

Sharia law was abolished and previous adaptations from western law were turned into the complete incorporation of the Italian criminal code and the Swiss civil code as Turkish law codes. The first republican constitution made reference to Islam as the language of the state, but from the beginning it was the intention of Atatürk (who in Enlightenment style was a deist) and his associates to weaken the role of religion in public life, as in France. The laicist ambition became more explicit over time and mosque was separated from state. The Ottoman Empire, particularly in its later centuries, was regarded negatively as non-Turkish and decadent. State education reflected this along with positive attitudes towards science and the modern. Co-education of the sexes became normal.

The language itself was transformed, as the Ottoman use of the Arabic alphabet was replaced by a version of the Latin alphabet for a language that was sufficiently changed in both grammar and vocabulary to become a distinct language. Persian and Arabic grammatical influences were removed along with many words from the Persian and Arabic languages. New vocabulary was based on old Turkish roots going back to central Asia. Surnames for Muslims were legally enforced for the first time. President Mustafa Kemal (Kemal is a name given by his school teacher, according to Ottoman Muslim practice of the time) became the first person to receive a surname under this law: Atatürk.

Religion was not just pushed out of the public sphere, as the state sought to reduce the general social influence of religion, prohibiting religious brotherhoods and saints’ tombs. A religious affairs ministry was set up to regulate Sunni Islam, controlling the Friday midday sermons and repressing the more radical expressions of religion. Civil marriage was made compulsory on the French model, so that religious marriages were no longer recognised.

These changes, usually known in Turkey as the Atatürk Reforms or Turkish Revolution, were accompanied by a very strong drive towards assimilation into a majority Turkish culture, as defined by the republican elite. The Kurdish language (or languages), most the Kurmanji dialect (or language) in Turkey was not made part of the education system and was actively discouraged by the state. The same applies to the Zazaki language, or dialect, of the Tunceli region which as far as I can see is more a dialect of Farsi than Kurdish (or is a language closer to Farsi than the Kurdish language, which are certainly all related).

Not surprisingly, given such radical state led changes, violent resistance and state violence to overcome resistance is a major issue at this time. In 1925 Sheik Said Nursi led a revolt of Kurds to defend religious tradition and the traditional tribal-patriarchal power structures the state was challenging. This was put down with considerable violence. A rebellion around Tunceli (which was previously known as Dersim and is still frequently referred to as such) in 1937 to 1938, was in reaction to a 1925 law requiring the dispersal of the population to ensure Turkification. The rebellion was put down with considerable counter-insurgency state violence, which killed civilians as armed rebels. In the end, the law was never enforced in Tunceli or anywhere else.

Politically, Atatürk welcomed the principle of pluralism, but was not willing to follow it in principle. At Atatürk’s own initiative a Free Republican Party was founded as an opposition to his own Republican People’s Party in 1930. The intention was that it would be a loyal opposition concentrating on economic issues, but it became radicalised beyond the intentions of its leaders as it became a gathering point for various kinds of radical opposition including religious conservatives and leftists. The party was dissolved in the same year and the Republican People’s Party was uncontested in national elections until 1946 and first conceded electoral defeat in 1950.

Ottomanism, Nationalism, Republicanism III

Previous posts in this series have looked at the preconditions for the proclamation of the Republic of  Turkey in 1923. The Ottoman Empire was in a very difficult situation from the early 19th century, effectively lacking the capacity to prevent erosion of its territory, extraterritorial legal rights for the stronger Great Powers which were extended to non-Muslim subjects the powers claimed to protect, and ‘mediation’ regarding break away groups within the Empire. The survival of the Empire was certainly in doubt by 1914 and World War One killed it, along with three other empires: Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian. In a more long term way, the war hastened the end of colonial European empires, though the French and British Empires gained territory from the Paris Peace Treaties.

It is hard to see how the Ottoman Empire could have survived except as a rump state, even without the war. It might have been smaller than the current republic and certainly would not have been larger. Had its German and Austro-Hungarian allies won the war, it would have survived with some territorial gains in north Africa, but as an effective dependency of Germany.

Defeat in the war destroyed the power of the Trio (Enver, Talat and Cemal) of military and bureaucratic figures who ran the Empire under the continuing nominal sovereignty of the Sultan in a secretive and unaccountable manner. They came of the Committee of Union Progress, the political party expression of the Young Turks who came to power in 1908. The methods of the trio are the culmination of the rapid movement of the CUP from a constitutional party to a conspiratorial and authoritarian political force: Kemal Atatürk was a member of the CUP but resigned because of its lack of republican radicalism, with perhaps some motivation from more personal kinds of dispute.

As World War I ended in 1918, the Sultan regained powers and followed a policy of appeasement towards Britain, continuing the logic of earlier dependency on Germany, that is the logic in which the state could only survive through appeasement of at least one Great Power. The government was superficially more liberal than what came before, but had so little basis in the residual Empire it’s hard to see any circumstance in which it would not have collapsed or resorted to state violence to replace the power of Britain, which was occupying Istanbul.

The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres gave all the remaining Arab provinces to Britain and France, who also occupied parts of Anatolia along with Italy and Greece (which was given most of eastern Thrace). An American backed Armenian state was envisaged in eastern Anatolia and a confederation of Kurdish majority provinces in the southeast with the British mandate in Mesopotamia-Iraq. As far as the elements of the Ottoman elite influenced by nationalism and republicanism were concerned, particularly those who were, or had been, active in the CUP this was entirely unacceptable, leaving a rump Ottoman state in the central and northern parts of Anatolia, separated from Istanbul in the southeast, the east, the south, and the west. A Greek invasion of Izmir and other parts of the west to enforce its Sèvres gains met with armed force.

Though the Ottoman state appeared to be completely defeated and helpless, the CUP had left a legacy of public and conspiratorial political and security organisation which led to considerable resistance. A general known as Mustafa Kemal Paşa, later Kemal Atatürk, was able to leave Istanbul and join up with anti-Sèvres forces in the east, under cover of ‘inspection’ of Ottoman forces, possibly with the connivance of elements of the residual Sultan regime. Atatürk’s strength of personality and political vision, along with military prestige from the Battle of Gallipoli, enabled him to become the military and political leader of these forces, so that a secularist radical vanguardist republican was at the head of a national assembly full of traditional Ottoman Muslims.

The consequences of this formative national movement (which had Kurdish as well as Turkish support) was that Mustafa Kemal was able to defeat the Greek expansion into Anatolia, push other occupying forces out, and that he was able to insist on a replacement for the Treaty of Sèvres, which is the Treaty of Lausanne. The whole process continued the ethnic violence which marked movements of rebellion against the Ottoman Empire and state counter-violence. It is very had to see how any postwar Ottoman or republican state could have avoided the continuation of early ethnic violence.

The republican regime emerged from a national movement against ethnically inspired partition and occupation, so was not going to aim for a consociational or federalist state to get ethnic groups to share a state. It was not even going to aim for pluralism within a unitary state. Turkish republicanism was based on nationalism, and ethnic nationalism at that, as the only likely basis for an enduring state. The means by which this was obtained during the War of Independence and the early republican regime were ugly, but the alternative was ugly attacks on Anatolian Muslims, principally Turks and then Kurds.

With all due respect to the dangers of ‘whataboutery’, the process in which parts of the Ottoman state kept breaking away to form Christian majority states was no more pleasant. The same applies to the Russian annexation of what had been Ottoman lands in the Caucasus, which appears to have led to the killing of one million, or more, Cherkez (Circassian) Muslims.

From the time of  Albanian revolts of the early years of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire was beginning to part ways with its Muslim population outside Anatolia and Thrace. The conflict between Arabs and the Ottoman state was extremely ugly on both sides. As I have mentioned, the Austria-Hungary fragmentation at the end of the First World War was unique in not leaving a state which represented the core of the Empire.

It is not an easy subject, but the evidence of the First World War and the 1920s is that a state needs some kind of core nationality and territory to survive, which we see even in a the multi-ethnic Yugoslav state, which had Serbs at its core. In Turkey the ethnic core of Turks, in alliance with a lesser number of Kurds and various ethnicities including Cherkez and Bosnşian which had been refugees from the post-Ottoman states, based in the territorial core of Anatolia, provided a basis for a national movement. The national movement was strongly influenced at elite levels by republican ideas of unified popular will, which could fit with nationalism.

To be continued

Ottomanism, Republicanism, Nationalism I

The Republican experiment in Turkey goes back formally to 1923, when Mustafa Kemal (later Kemal Atatürk) proclaimed the Republic of Turkey after the deposition of the last Ottoman Sultan, becoming the first President of the Republic after holding the office of Speaker of the National Assembly. The office of Caliph (commander of the faithful), which had a symbolic universalism for Muslim believers world wide and was held by the Ottoman dynasty, was abolished in the following year. The Republic, as you would expect in the early 20s, was founded on intensely nationalistic grounds, creating a nation for Turks distinct from the Ottoman system which was created in an era of religiously defined and personalised rule rather than ethnic-national belonging.

The move in a republican-national direction can be taken back to the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, which itself put down a counterrevolution in 1909, and might be taken as a model for current political divisions (in a qualified clarification through simplification manner). The name rather exaggerates the nationalist element of the revolution. The governments which came after 1908, ruling under an Ottoman dynasty reduced to a ceremonial role, were torn between Turkish nationalist, Ottomanist, and Islamist replacements for the personalised nature of Ottoman rule.

In this context Ottomanist refers to creating the idea of an Ottoman citizenship and shared institutions rather than restoring the political power of the dynasty. Variations on these ideas include Pan-Turkism/Turanism (the unity of Turkish peoples from the Great Wall of China to the Adriatic Sea) and a Dual Monarchy of Turks and Arabs modeled on the Habsburg Dual Monarchy of Austrians and Hungarians (that is the Habsburgs were Emperors of Austria in the Austrian lands and Kings of Hungary in the Magyar lands).

The move away from a patrimonial state based on the hereditary legitimacy of dynasties, who were not formally restricted by any laws or institutions, goes back to the Tanzimat edict of 1839, issued by Sultan Abdulmejid I in 1839, establishing administrative reforms and rights for Ottoman subjects of all religions. This might be taken as providing a model of moderate or even conservative constitutional reformism associated with the Young Ottoman thinkers and state servants. It has its roots in the reign of Mahmud II. Mahmud cleared the way for the reform process by the destruction of the Janissary Order, that is the military corps which had expanded into various areas of Ottoman life and was an important political force. The Tanzimat period led to the constitution and national assembly of 1876, which was suspended by Sultan Abdul II in 1878.

Abdul Hamit carried on with administrative reforms, of a centralised kind which were seen as compatible with his personal power, accompanied by war against rebellious Ottoman subjects of such a brutal kind that he became known as the Red Sultan. His status has been greatly elevated by President Erdoğan who evidently wishes to see himself as a follower of Abdul Hamit II, rather giving away his tendency to regard democracy and constitutionalism as adornments to be displayed when they can be bent and twisted to his end, rather than as intrinsic values. The brutality of Abdul Hamit II, the violent reactionary, was foreshadowed in the reformism of Mahmud II. His destruction of the arch-conservative corps of the Janissaries was a highly violent affair in which an Istanbul mutiny provoked by Mahmud was put down through the execution of prisoners who survived the general fighting.

In this sketch, I try to bring out the ways in which the Ottoman state used systematic violence to reform and to push back reform, when giving rights and when taking them away. There is no Ottoman constitutional tradition respecting the rights of all and the pre-republican changes were just as violent as the most extreme moments of the republican period.

The ‘millet system’ of self-governing religious communities under the Sultan was a retrospective idealisation of ways in which the Ottomans accommodated religious diversity, at the time the capacity of the state to have legitimacy over non-Muslim subjects was declining. Serbia started revolting in 1804, leading to self-government within the Empire in 1817, on the basis of national post-French Revolution, not the ‘millet’ tradition rooted in classical Muslim ideas of ‘protected’ minorities. The strength of modern nationalism in the Ottoman lands is confirmed by Greek Independence, internationally recognised in 1832, following a war in which western educated Greeks familiar with ideas of nationalism and sovereignty provided the ideology.

The republican national tradition in Turkey is sometimes seen as a fall away from Ottoman pluralism and therefore as regressive. The ‘regression’, as in the influence of nationalism and reconstruction of the Ottoman state through centralisation and centrally controlled violence, actually goes back much further. The Ottoman state was not able to find ways of accommodating the aspirations first of non-Muslim subjects then even of Muslim subjects outside Anatolia and Thrace. In this process the Ottoman state was step by step becoming what is now Turkey, based on the loyalty of mostly ethnic Turkish subjects, including Muslim refugees from break-away states who fled into Anatolia, and to some degree on the loyalty of Kurds in Anatolia to the Ottoman system. Antagonism towards Ottoman Armenians was one part of this.

To be continued

Eye Candy: Kurdistan

NOL map Kurdistan.png
Click here to zoom (courtesy of the excellent Decolonial Atlas)

Countries with significant Kurdish populations in the Near East: Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

Countries with significant Kurdish populations in the Near East that the United States has bombed or put boots on the ground in: Iraq and Syria.

Countries with significant Kurdish populations in the Near East that the United States has threatened to bomb and possibly invade: Iran.

Countries with significant Kurdish populations in the Near East that the United States is allied with: Turkey.

Three of the four countries with significant Kurdish populations in the Near East are (or was, in the case of Iraq) considered hostile to the US government, so the use of Kurds to further American Realpolitik in the region is almost obvious, until you consider that Turkey has been a longtime ally of Washington.

Suppose you’re a big-time Washington foreign policy player. Do you arm Kurdish militias in Syria, encourage continued political autonomy in Kurdish Iraq, finance Kurdish discontent in Iran, and shrug your shoulders at Istanbul? Seriously, what do you do in this situation?